A Sibling’s Open Letter to the Deadly Disease of Addiction

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The last few years have been particularly difficult for me. I’ve had to disengage from my family due to their struggle with severe and persistent addiction. My sister and all of her adult children have struggled for more than a decade with substance abuse issues, causing severely strained relationships, disability, and even the recent loss of custody of my two great nephews. 

I wrote the letter below to help me process the pain of essentially losing my family to the very serious and deadly disease of addiction. Two of my family members are now disabled with severe and persistent mental illness due to their use of methamphetamines. None of my nieces and nephews are employed, nor did any of them receive their high school diplomas. My mother and I are no longer in communication because her denial and enabling over the years has fractured our relationship. I’ve had to disengage and take a break so that I can heal and begin to recover from the loss. 

Addiction truly is a family disease and it affects everyone in the family. I have found Nar-Anon to be a valuable resource for support and information for family members struggling to cope and heal with the presence of addiction in the family. Nar-Anon, adapted from Narcotics Anonymous, is a worldwide group whose members are family and friends who are concerned about a loved one’s struggle with substance abuse. Here is their website: https://www.nar-anon.org.   

Here is my letter to this deadly disease.

Dear Addiction

I hate you. 

I hate what you have done to those I love. You’ve taken their lives and ruthlessly thrown them into the fire, watching them burn, with indifference. You truly are the living embodiment of hell on earth.

Addiction, I hate you.

I loathe the day you waltzed in promising my sister that you would make things so much better for her. Rolling out the red carpet, giving her the royal treatment, and romancing her so she would get hooked. All the lies you fed her, knowing that when it was all said and done, another soul would be stolen and another victim, left, scrambling, sweating, sick on the floor, begging for more. All the times you gave her and others the false impression that they could easily let go of you, when and if they desired, knowing that your physical dependence would imprison & enslave them.

Addiction, I hate you.  

I hate the power you hold over those I love, and what they gave up when you finally secured a place in their soul. They gave up their identity and called themselves “addicts”, enslaving themselves to a lifetime of using and shame. You don’t deserve those victimized by you. You’re not only taking lives, you’re robbing millions of their potential and peace. Their waking hours are spent fixated on you, and how to remain in your “good graces”.  Some will steal, lie, and destroy relationships to maintain your presence in their lives.

Addiction, I hate you.  

I hate what you do to families, ripping them apart. I hate that your destruction causes bewilderment and confusion, leaving people uncertain whether to confront or enable. Often, children, affected by your disease, will defend you and may even grow up somewhat complacent and numb to the chaos you have created. You sit back waiting, chomping at the bits to claim another victim. Children, raised in an environment where you reign, are particularly vulnerable. 

Addiction, I hate you.

You tell your victim lies, entrapping them in shame and self-loathing, many times causing them to discard their loved ones who confront their drug use. You mock those who are to trying to keep your victims safe. Those screaming in the distance are muted by the noise you cause, that continually deafens and disorients your victim. 

Addiction, I hate you.  

I hate you for destroying my family bonds. As the flames grew higher, and the devastation reached epic proportions, some of us screamed louder, while others have enabled more and shrunk back in denial. I’ve screamed so much that my voice has become hoarse, hitting a brick wall, reverberating around this dark chamber that has become all too familiar. I’ve been sent to the dungeon, cold and alone, by the loved ones who you have claimed as your victims. Nothing penetrates the walls you’ve built, keeping the victim in a vicious cycle, enslaving them, encouraging them to justify their actions that serve you, and you alone. You’ll have your victim admit that they are powerless, but your allure will entice them to forever stand close to the fire. The fire is never entirely extinguished.  I have become disillusioned and have danced around the flames, sometimes raging, and other times desperately trying to reach you. And you discard me once again.  

Addiction, I hate you. 

Through the years of my experience knowing you, I have doubted my own reality. I have looked through the eyes of the victim and no longer know if it is you or my sister that I am staring at and this devastates me. Her adult kids have now all been touched by your fire and are struggling as we speak.

Addiction, I hate you.  

If one ever tries to cut ties with you, you hold on like a bitch with nails, clinging, taking the life out of them. You torture them with beatings and lashings, as they hurl you from their body, clinging to the toilet, and sinking on the floor, sweating. “I’ll teach you never to leave me!” You snarl and spit in their face, sometimes hijacking their minds with hallucinations and delusional thinking.  

No, it’s hell to leave you.  

You do not want to relinquish your control.

Addiction, I hate you.  

And when the dust settles, there is stillness. And then, there is the dealing with the aftermath while the cravings for you are forever present, occupying a permanent space in the victim’s mind.    

Addiction, I hate you.  

And, if all of this is not enough, your victims wear the label of “addict”, having to rebuild, often ashamed and remorseful. There are some who have been sitting at your table for so long they have lost themselves. Your presence can cause changes to the brain that may lower empathy and create cognitive issues. I am perpetually oscillating between the extremes of trying to help and becoming angry and aggressively confronting . I am seen as harsh and cruel, when really I am sad and scared. I have become an indirect victim, my moods and perceptions often altered by this deadly, intoxicating dance. 

Addiction, I hate you.  

Because of you, I am letting go of my family. Not just my sister, and her family, but my mother as well. It’s getting too hard to keep trying, only to be devalued and discarded. The pain has become too intolerable for my mother. She compensates with enabling and denial which only serves to further isolate me, while those I love become increasingly more sick. I sometimes lose my dignity in anger and rage, saying things I know will only cause me more shame and sadness. I begin to wonder and fear if some victims ever reach full recovery from you. 

And, then, I hate on you some more. 

Addiction, I hate you. 

Your reign in my life is over. I have truly tried to save my sister and her kids from your very ugly, abusive ways, but it is up to them to ride this dangerous storm out and do what is necessary to seek help and change. I will remain hopeful that they one day they have the strength and perseverance to eradicate you from every inch of their lives. You have absolutely no place in mine. I will be more healthier in the end, letting go, healing, and remaining available, when and if any are ready to heal.

Goodbye, addiction.  

I’ve learned that those who leave you, must be the one to cut ties. No one can do it for them. I hope to one day stand on the other side of you, with my family, free from the pain and suffering you’ve created.

Addiction, I hate you.
Our story is complete.

Letting Go of the Shame Caused by Stigma

Me and Gracie!

That’s me above, and my pup, Gracie.  This picture was taken nearly 5 years ago while I was still working.  I was living in Seattle, WA at the time, and working in a long term facility as a recreation therapist (CTRS).  And, trust me, even while donning a huge smile, I was severely anxious and struggling! 


Since then, I’ve been approved for SSDI and have been focusing on rebuilding my health, one day at a time. My  hope is to live gracefully with my illnesses of: Bipolar I, PTSD, ADHDOCD, and PMDD. I have learned to accept my illness and am acquiring new skills and approaches to cope more effectively.
 
The suffering I’ve endure related to my mental illness has been amplified by the stigma and the shame surrounding it.  It has taken me years to separate myself from the symptoms that my illness has caused and the stigma that is perpetuated by those who lack the awareness and sensitivity to understand my struggle. The shame I feel from having an illness has significantly decreased over time, as I have worked to cultivate acceptance and compassion for my struggle.
  
The “stigma and shame” surrounding the “suffering” can, at times, exacerbate the severity of my illness. It has taken years of healing to separate the “suffering” from the “stigma” and the “shame” that often accompanies mental illness. I share in the following paragraphs how the suffering, which is often biological for me, has been impacted by the stigma I’ve faced, which inadvertently causes shame. Being able to see these as independent from one another, has allowed me to move further along in my healing process. 
        
What do I mean by my “suffering”? 

My “suffering” is my life-long struggle with an illness that causes chemical changes in my brain that are often difficult for me to manage and control. I never chose to be mentally ill, not for a certain time period, or even for a day! In fact, my illness began when I was in the “prime” of my life! I was captain and MVP of the swim team, had a leading role in the school musical, and was well supported by my friends and church. Like many others who struggle, I was active and involved prior to the onset of my mental illness. My illness began around my sophomore year, and it crept along, gaining momentum, until one day it was painfully obvious to others that something was just “not right”.  In my case, my struggle presented itself as a combination of symptoms that included: obsessive & intrusive thoughts, delusions, anxietypanic attacksdepression, and disassociation. I was acutely aware that my thought processes were somewhat “off” and I decided, on my own, to seek treatment. It was unsettling to me at the time and caused me much distress.
  
I have often made the comparison that my “suffering” is much like having an onslaught of bad “side effects” to a prescribed medication, except that the symptoms are often more severe than that of side effects and the onset and duration of symptoms can be unpredictable and uncertain. For example, too much caffeine may cause some to experience symptoms comparable to mild mania in that they may be: edgy, anxious, irritable, energetic, even euphoric, etc.  Their mind might even race and they may feel overly optimistic about what they can accomplish.  Depression can feel somewhat like taking too much Benadryl for an allergy attack: one can feel foggy, exhausted, excessively sleepy, and withdrawn.  In drawing these comparisons, I am trying to help a person who doesn’t suffer understand that the symptoms are not only biological, like side effects that must wear off, but they are also difficult to “snap out off”.  Unfortunately, for the sufferer, it is not as easy as discontinuing a medication to stop the unwanted side effects. 
  
Thus, my “suffering” is a lot like clipping along and doing “ok” and then being suddenly blindsided by a cycle of unwanted “side effects” in which there is no escape.  Sounds like a personal hell, right?  It is. This is the suffering that most people (unless they experience it) do not understand, while some others do not even acknowledge. Medication and other approaches (mediation, therapy, etc.) can sometimes alleviate or decrease symptoms, but many of us suffer for years, on and off, endlessly trying to “escape” a chemical imbalance that causes the illness.  

The Stigma: 

Unfortunately, because mental illness is often misunderstood, I’ve had to “suffer” in world that stigmatizes and shames those struggling.  There are many people that question the validity of mental illness and have unfair and unrealistic expectations of those struggling. I can remember being released from my first hospital stay and friends laughing at me or telling me I just need to “snap out of it”. I even had a counselor in college who told me, I needed to “pull my boots straps up, and try harder”. Obviously, this caused me immense shame as I blamed myself when I struggled to control my moods or manage my level of anxiety. This compounded my anxiety and depression as I felt ostracized from others and would resort to “self-loathing” when my illness became episodic and I couldn’t “snap out of it”. I often blamed myself and became more alienated. I was diagnosed before the internet was in existence and couldn’t reach out to “social media” or on-line groups for support.  
  
Often people who have a mental illness feel that they must hide their struggle from the workplace, for fear of retaliation. I remember after being initially diagnosed in the early 90’s with Bipolar 1, I was told to “hide” my diagnosis from others, particularly in the workplace. This only served to ramp up my anxiety as I struggled to keep everything “sucked in” and hidden from view. I have even lost jobs and experienced discrimination in the workplace when requesting help in the form of accommodations. My struggle was often viewed as not credible and I was seen as a “troublemaker” or an “attention seeker”.
  
The stigma surrounding those struggling with a psychiatric disorder, often prevents people getting help in the workplace and seeking treatment. The effects of stigma can be devastating and can mean job losses and access to adequate care.  Many of the failures stemming from those suffering are not the fault of the individual struggling, but of the inadequate and unjust system that perpetuates stigma and negative stereotypes.  

The Shame:

The stigma can lead to a deep level of shame. Without others having the awareness and/or sensitivity of my illness, of which I felt I had to “hide”, there were times I was misunderstood. I might have been seen as haughty or short when I had to disappear quickly to manage an escalating panic attack. I may have been viewed as uninterested or unmotivated on a day when I was struggling with my depression. My symptoms were often misinterpreted as my personality, and this caused me conflicts with others. In time, I could see clearly that my illness had robbed me of my potential in the workplace, but NOT of my talent, motivation, experience, or passion. It was often how I decompensated during times of stress, due to my illness, that wrecked me. And my frantic efforts to to feign “normalcy” only exacerbated things, until I just “quit” abruptly, or began missing too much work.
 
These lived experiences of struggling, experiencing stigma, and then feeling shame, ultimately caused me to respect my illness, for what it truly is: a devastating biological illness that affects my mood and perceptions which is often visibly seen through my behaviors. I began to see the distinction between myself, when I am suffering, and myself when I am not. I started to challenge myself in the midst of my suffering to let go of the shame that I had relating to my behavior when sick.  I could see that focusing on the negative behaviors that arise during an episode, often served to keep me hooked in a cycle of shame and regret.  Instead, I decided to give the illness the respect it deserved and I spent time finding ways to aggressively fight it and keep it at bay. 
 
If you are like me, if will more than likely rear its ugly head again, but this time when it does, I have decided to forgive myself, instead of lamenting the mistakes made when chained against my will, and suffering with a serious mental illness. Now, I get busy working to “get ahead” of the next episode.  I’ve decided to be like a hunter and become skilled at tracking it down, intercepting it, hopefully before it escalates too much. And even, if I become ill, and things “get messy”, I quickly return to practicing self compassion and respecting the chronic mental illness that I live with that takes immense effort to manage effectively. 

I’ve learned through a lot of years of tears and immense pain, that I don’t have to be ashamed anymore. I also acknowledge that many people are going to misunderstand my illness and there is only so much I can do to educate and inform others. My hope is through writing I can help others better understand what it has been like struggling now for nearly 32 years with a severe and persistent mental illness. And, I am immensely proud of the courage and persistence I espouse, despite the often insurmountable odds I’ve faced living in a world that is still sometimes not accepting or sensitive to my struggle. I hope this helps others. If it does, I am even more grateful for what I’ve lived through and survived. 

Holding onto Hope for Your Recovery

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I have never struggled with substance abuse. I have struggled with an addiction of another type, gambling. I once had to ban myself from all nearby casinos. I still struggle sometimes, but it is not much of a problem anymore.
On the other hand, many in my family have struggled for years with chronic and severe addiction. I love them and I know it is a disease, yet, my heart has been broken more times than I can count from this family affliction. It has taken time and years from our family and caused a lot of friction, distance, and worry.
Somehow, every now and again, they resurface and contact is again granted to me. This time it is a loss of custody of their 2 children. It is really important for them to recover and remain sober if they want to regain custody. We are in the space of not knowing if the disease will win or not. There is someone I love very much wrestling with the decision of going to rehab this very night.


And so, I just wanted to put this out there.
To anyone struggling with addiction:


Please know that you are loved deeply. There will always be someone who longs for you to resurface and recover. Even in the darkest of storms where you feel the high tide will overcome you, there is still hope. I say this because I have seen it happen. Not with my family, yet. But, I always hold out a small flicker of hope, always being fanned by the breathe of life and love that dwells deep within all of us. Love is stronger than the devastation caused by this disease. This I do know.
I have been guilty of lashing out when losing so many of my loved ones to this disease. Many holidays spent alone, in tears, in anguish. Many harsh words spit from my tongue. And still yet, I will always soften to the possibility and the hope that someday they will resurface. That I can laugh with them again and reunite. That we can spend time with ease, not tension, where I have to hold my breathe.
This is not to guilt anyone. The disease is real and it affects the entire family. Remember that. Those who are hurting and lashing out in fear and helplessness when addiction has taken hold, are also afflicted with the same disease. Practice self compassion. Soften to the truth that it is a true disease. Take the time to heal, to forgive yourself, and others. And remember, you are loved.

It is just one step… at a time… asking for help. You don’t need to know all the answers. No one holds them. We are all just searching in the end.


I hope someone struggling reads this and decides to make that difficult choice to get help, now. I promise someone is longing for you to resurface. And rediscovering yourself will be the greatest gift.

YOU deserve that.
Love and light to you. Let’s keep the hope and faith alive.